MARY Achieng sifted through her catch of silver cyprinid fish, sorting them into sacks and carrying them to the weighing stand at Kogwang Beach, on the shore of Lake Victoria.
Achieng had caught the fish the night before, using a solar-powered light to lure them into her nets. The 500kg haul would earn her 50,000 Kenyan shillings ($450) — enough to keep her family going until she next went out again on the lake a week later.
Before she got the lamp two years ago, Achieng had to stock her stall in Kendu Bay with whatever she could buy from local fishermen, many of whom would only sell to women offering up their bodies for sex.
‘The fishermen dictated who to sell the fish to. If you did not please them, you would have nothing to sell for the day,’ the 34-year-old, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said.
Such ‘sex-for-fish’ deals are common in Lake Victoria’s fishing industry, which is controlled by men who can afford the tools needed to catch fish, including the lights used to attract the cyprinid, say local women’s rights advocates.
But a renewable energy project launched under the Africa for SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) initiative is helping women in the area feed their families and stay safe from abuse by arming them with solar-powered lamps that allow them to do their own fishing.
Since it started in 2018, the project has given free solar lights to more than 400 women in western Kenya who were previously involved in the sex-for-fish trade, said Joe Bonga, CEO of the Nairobi-based Africa for SDGs.
The project, implemented in partnership with the non-profit International Christian Youthworks Africa and US-based charity Watts of Love, aims to reach 400 more women by the time it ends in 2023, Bonga noted.
‘The solar lights have not only revolutionised fishing in this region, but they have also increased the economic production around the lake region,’ he said.
The lamps have other uses away from the lake, he said.
‘The good thing is that as you are going onto the lake, you are charging the solar light while using it. With enough power, you use the light again at home,’ Bonga said.
The fishing industry provides a livelihood for about 90 percent of the Lake Victoria population, according to government figures.
Using her lamp to light her fish stall, Achieng said she can stay open longer each day, and now earns 10 times more than she used to.
‘With the solar lights, I can do my own fishing and more,’ she said. ‘I can decide to stay late in the market to sell my fish and I can also decide to be at home so that my children can study using the solar light.’
‘Give women tools’
Bonga explained that many Lake Victoria fishers go out at night so they can use artificial light to attract more fish. But most use kerosene lamps placed in or on the side of boats, which limits the amount of light shining into the water.
When women are given solar lamps, they are trained to encase them in polythene bags so they can lower them into the lake, casting more light and resulting in bigger catches, he said. Also, unlike kerosene lamps, the solar lamps do not get blown out by strong winds, he said.
With a battery stronger than that of an iPhone 8, the palm-sized light is shockproof, can last 10 years and run for up to 120 hours on a single charge, said Nancy Economou, founder and president of Watts of Love.
‘We give women the tools, we give them the lights, we give them the education, and we give them the (assets) to become successful,’ she said in a video call.
Health and freedom
Along with the economic boost, the use of solar lights is bringing health benefits to communities around Lake Victoria, say locals and health experts.
The sex-for-fish trade is one of the reasons rates of HIV/AIDS in developing countries is four to 14 times higher in fishing communities than the national average, said a 2020 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Kisumu County’s chief health officer Gregory Ganda said the county has ‘worrying’ numbers of HIV prevalence and teen pregnancies compared to other counties, but they have been declining over recent years.
Dan Otieno, secretary of a local fishing group, credits the solar lights with helping bring those numbers down.
‘The project has helped with health matters because now we are (seeing) reduced HIV transmission and … reduced HIV orphans and teenage pregnancies,’ he said.
Beyond the lake’s shores, the lamps also help families light their homes without producing toxic smoke.
The domestic use of dirty fuels such as kerosene and charcoal contributes to air pollution that causes an estimated 500,000 premature deaths in Africa each year, the World Health Organisation says.
Moses Simiyu, a grain farmer in Nasianda village, western Kenya, said he supports innovations like the solar lights that help poor families buy less kerosene. ‘But solar lights should be given to both men and women, so that there is a gender balance in who benefits from the project,’ he said.
For Achieng, the ability to fish for herself is a step towards equality, giving her back control of her livelihood and her body.
‘I feel like part of me that had been taken away has been returned because of the solar lights,’ she said. ‘Now I know the joys of being empowered as a woman and the economic freedom that comes with it.’